What Skills Do the Next Generation of Leaders Need?
As we progress from a pandemic mindset to a post-pandemic mindset, many organizations are thinking about what skills the next generation of leaders need in order to be able to handle the stress and uncertainty of the new normal. It's likely to continue to be part of the business landscape for years to come.
Leadership is one of the most difficult jobs in normal times, and it's made even more so by the conditions of the past year. Has the pandemic and widespread remote work changed expectations?
We spoke with business leaders about the traits, skills, and qualities that turn a potential leader into the type of leader that motivates, encourages, engages and guides employees to feel empowered, innovative, excited, loyal and productive. Here's what they had to say.
Time Management and Communication Key to Post-Pandemic Leadership
Time management is often cited as one of the most important soft skills a leader can possess, but it's an outdated concept, said Kate Christie, CEO of Time Stylers, time management specialist and author of "SMART Time Investment: 128 Ways the Best in Business Use their Time." Leaders need to be able to think about time differently in a post-pandemic world.
“They need to move away from a mindset of having to manage time to a mindset of wanting to invest time," she said. "They need to think about their time the way they think about their money, as a precious, enormously valuable and limited resource that must be consciously invested for the greatest possible return.”
Devin Johnson, co-founder and CEO of Kennected, an automated SaaS lead generation funnel, said leaders need to re-learn how to effectively communicate via the written word, because the nuances of face-to-face communication don’t easily carry over into the remote workplace.
“I am a very smiley guy, very outgoing, very much your pal," he said. "This was great in the office, bouncing around to the different departments and teams, collaborating, buzzing with ideas and everything else. I admit, I found it difficult to relay this good humor digitally. And yet, it was the time that my team most needed to be uplifted.”
Johnson refocused on his writing skills so he could create inspiring content to share throughout the organization along with general day-to-day communications. “I didn't want to be the emoji guy, especially when trying to convey something that's coming from the heart," he said. "To be a leader is to guide by example, I always believe. If I want my team to be upbeat, need them to be happy, I have to convey that message from myself, from my own experience, genuinely."
Effective communication skills are at the top of the list of leadership traits that will enable leaders to get through tough times. "In a nutshell, the next generation of leaders are going to have to be able to know how to correctly express themselves through writing,” Johnson said.
Remote and Mobile Leadership Skills
Stephen Light, the chief marketing officer and co-owner of Nolah Mattress, said remote work has proven to be a possible alternative to onsite working and companies should be training future leaders to manage people remotely. There's no one-size-fits-all model for remote leadership.
“Not all effective onsite leaders can transfer their leadership skills to remote work," Light said. "Companies need to invest time and money in making sure their future leaders know how to effectively manage distant team members since the dynamics and process workflows are completely different between the two set-ups.”
Kash Shaikh, CEO and president of Virtana, a San Jose-based hybrid and multi-cloud optimization company, said leaders need to recognize and take advantage of the positive benefits of remote work.
"Managing virtually is oddly enough both harder and easier," Shaikh said. "Harder, because we are not face-to-face. Easier, because we are not on planes, trains, and automobiles wasting time. So, the opportunity is to use that time gained to be in more virtual team meetings, more one-on-ones, and use the gift of that time to make every connection count.”
Today's leaders need to value emotional intelligence and continually hone their skills to be effective, he said, regardless of physical location.
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Generational Awareness and Strategy
Chuck Underwood, founder and principal of The Generational Imperative, Inc. and author of "America's Generations in the Workplace, Marketplace and Living Room," said there's increased need for generational awareness in leaders. This is important, Underwood said, because Gen X, Millennials and Generation Z have had their people skills significantly diminished and will need significant training to overcome it.
“Gen X kids endured the most difficult childhood passage in U.S. history for three primary reasons: a skyrocketing divorce rate; the first 'time-poor' American family lifestyle because the feminist movement was now providing moms with legitimate career opportunities; and, a stunning new isolation of American kids who now had their own bedrooms, TV sets, stereos, telephones and spent more time distanced from their elders than any prior generation,” Underwood said.
He said Gen X children grew up more shy, skeptical and cynical of the adult world as a result. They tend to be more self-focused, and a lack of specific leadership training to address this will diminish their leadership success.
Millennials are more outgoing and comfortable in the presence of elders than Gen X, Underwood said, and they arrived in adulthood hopeful and optimistic. But they were profoundly effected in their formative years by technology, he added, and the resulting overabundance of screens created shortcoming when they entered the working world.
“Here is why my clients, employers across virtually all industries, reported as Millennials arrived: sense of immediacy and impatience; short attention spans; restlessness, boredom, superficial knowledge, tech addiction," Underwood said. "And weakness in these skills: communication; critical thinking; empathy; organization; punctuality; social savvy; creativity; adaptability; and telephone skills.”
Gen Z are similar to Millennials and have “diminished people skills because of their (genuine) addiction to screens.” Because of these generational challenges, Underwood said, next generation leaders must have generational knowledge, empathy and strategies:
- Knowledge: “Formal training to understand, deeply, generational dynamics.”
- Empathy: “Even if you have knowledge of generational dynamics, you will fail if you don’t also demonstrate empathy and compassion for generational beliefs and needs that are different from your own.”
- Strategy: “Even if you have the knowledge and empathy, you must also know how to include generational strategies in your organization’s hour-by-hour, decade-by-decade decision-making.”
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Continuous Learning for Agility
Skills are the new currency in today’s work environment and our ability to adapt to the increased pace of business, be more agile, and build new skill sets is connected to our ability to achieve greater things, said Amy Borsetti, senior director of LinkedIn Learning.
"The need to actively seek opportunities to learn new skills or deepen existing skills is critical to stay relevant," she said. "Building healthy learning habits will help us thrive as contributors to any organization. Continuous learning has been cemented as a must-have first principle of our future workforce."
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The COVID-19 pandemic, along with the advancement of technology, and the spotlight on racial inequities at work has changed the future workplace and the future workforce, said Borsetti. LinkedIn Learning’s 2021 Workplace Learning Report revealed that the most important skills this year include communication across remote or distributed teams, emotional intelligence and cross functional collaboration. Today’s workforce requires leaders to build the emotional intelligence to lead inclusively with a workforce that is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. A McKinsey report indicated that many organizations are redesigning their organizational structure to be fitter, flatter and faster.
“This change will require future leaders to become efficient and effective collaborators across various functions in the organization,” said Borsetti. “While there is more to the story, those that find themselves in their first people-leadership role or are aspiring to be people leaders, should consider building these capabilities now. And better yet, building learning into their everyday habits.”
Agility and the ability to adapt is vital today, said Brian Dechesare, founder and CEO of Mergers & Inquisitions. “Now, more than ever it’s critical to look at any necessary structural and procedural change in a positive light,” he said. “Pivoting is an unavoidable part of post-pandemic business, and the best leaders will look at change as a growth opportunity leading to innovation and help their employees to meet challenges head-on with a positive attitude, too.”
Along with a positive attitude toward change, continued learning and skills improvement is more important than ever as leaders recognize change comes with a requirement for different skills, he said.
Self Awareness and Empathy
Eyal Lifshitz, CEO and founder of fintech BlueVine, said that self and situational awareness is the most important trait in a leader. This means being aware of what’s happening around the company, and being attuned to the market along with the emotional needs of partners and investors.
“This sense of awareness naturally lends itself to learning, which is equally important because, despite our best efforts, the pandemic has shown us that there is no playbook. As leaders, we can’t just say ‘I’m going to do what X did, and it’s going to work out,’ it simply doesn’t work like that. Leaders need to be in ‘receiving mode’ in order to learn, adapt and ultimately make the right decisions for their employees, customers, partners and business overall,” Lifshitz said.
The next generation of leaders will have to be people-centric and empathize with the challenges and struggles of employees, said Hari Vasudevan, founder and CEO of Think Power Solutions, a construction oversight, PMO, and IT solutions provider.
“The best future leaders will be able to straddle the importance of finding people who are the best at what they do, while at the same time being cognizant and concerned about the well-being of these employees. The most successful leaders will possess this emotional intelligence and empathy and ensure their employees are happy,” said Vasudevan.
They'll also need “emotional energy,” the ability to evaluate people fairly quickly, connect with them, empower them and get out of their way so they can succeed, Vasudevan said. “The best of leaders with emotional energy will be present as a guide and cheer leader for their workforces, encouraging them to achieve their goals.”
That also means encouraging a larger focus on work-life balance, mental health and overall wellness. “CEOs and managers need to be more open to letting their employees request time off from their jobs, even if it's for things like mental health, rest, or recuperation,” said David McHugh, CEO and founder of My Mixify, a sports, fitness, and wellness blog.
“A time like the pandemic has shown us how we have to work together to overcome tough times and hardships. Most of all, though, it's hopefully shown us the importance of empathy among leaders and people in power,” he said.
Leadership for this next phase of business boils down to one thing: remember that everyone is human, said Andrey Doichev, founder of Inc and Go, which helps businesses form LLCs.
“Your team is made up of humans with complex lives, stresses, celebrations and skills, and you as a leader need to see them that way instead of just a vessel of productivity," Doichev said. "Of course, as a leader you are human too, and that will play into how you present yourself and how you lead.”
Compassion, transparency and humility are key abilities, said Doichev. “Giving your team compassion in difficult times will help you grow stronger and create a bond that is resilient, trusting and loyal,” he said. “Being transparent and open about processes and decisions that directly affect your team will show that you acknowledge that decisions impact them and acknowledge their intelligence to handle information.”
Finally, humility lets others know that leaders are not infallible and they make mistakes. “Be open to feedback, create opportunities for your team to share ideas, and admit when you are wrong or need input without feeling the need to apologize,” Doichev said.
The Tip of the Leadership Skills Iceberg
This is by no means a comprehensive summary. Additional critical skills that are needed by the next generation of leaders include:
- Strategic thinking
- Creativity and imagination
- Analytical thinking
- Active listening
- Dilemma flipping
- Cultural intelligence
- Growth mindset
The leaders of tomorrow will be challenged by both the successes and failures of today’s leaders. By learning the lessons of the pandemic, being prepared for the remote workforce, becoming more generationally aware, remaining flexible and adaptable, and remembering to be empathetic and transparent, tomorrow’s leaders can be the motivating and empowering innovators that companies are seeking.